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Tent Life in Tigerland
Chapter III - A Nocturnal Adventure


Out for Kubber—A clean shot—The Loha sarung, or sarus crane— A strange place for a live fish—Wealth of game—A varied baft— My yarn—Leopards superior to the tiger in daring and ferocity— Partiality to a diet of dogs—A seed harvest camp—Leopards close by—A sultry night under canvas—Dozing off—Is it a nightmare?—A terrible awakening—Eye to eye—A perilous interviewer—The fatal shot.

Hudson and self were up early next morning, long before the others were awake, and hastily quailing a cup of tea brought by the ever watchful bearer, we mounted a small pad elephant which was in readiness, and sallied forth to see if we could get news of tiger, or find out what had become of the "Duntar."

We found that the infuriated brute had luckily not gone near any village; and I may as well here state that during the day he was secured, by the aid of several male elephants, and hobbled so firmly to a strong post near one of the -villages, that he was rendered incapable of further mischief during the continuance of his fit.

Jogging along, with our guns over our knees, we talked of various things; I noting keenly the appearances of the jungle, and often exchanging interrogatories with the mahoot or driver. As we neared a great branching skeleton of a withered cotton tree, the keen eye of my friend spied high up in the forked branches an accumulation of twigs, grass, sticks and feathers. Thinking it might be a vulture's nest, and being desirous of procuring some of the eggi for a collector who had asked me to try and get him a few if possible, we moved round the tree to have a better view.

Suddenly Pat touched my arm, saying excitedly, "Look there, Maori—there's a head in the nest—what is it?"

I looked up to where he pointed, and there sure enough, peering over the edge of the nest at us we could discern a piercing eye watching with the utmost intentness our every movement. The eye belonged to a head with a high bald-looking crown, in company with a strong projecting beak having broad duck-like mandibles.

"Hold on," I said to the mahout.

"Dhut!" This to the elephant in guttural Hindostanee. "Dhut" is the order in mahout language for the elephant to stand perfectly still.

The sagacious brute was immediately as still as stone. "It is a Loha sarung," I whispered to Pat.

I had ball cartridge in my gun—I took steady aim at the motionless head. My bullet entered at the base of the skull and went clean through at the other side. On after examination we found it had carried the brain clean away, leaving the empty skull. There was scarcely a movement in the loosely piled mass of material composing the nest. The head sunk quietly out of sight. I was certain I had made a hit, but Pat began "chaffing" me.

"Why, man, you've missed."

Just then a few drops of blood began to drip slowly down, striking heavily on a projecting branch, and then a tiny crimson stream began to trickle down the tree, a mute evidence of the accuracy of my aim.

All was so perfectly still in the nest above that we could scarcely credit the evidence of our senses, but sending the mahout up the tree, he pulled out the unfortunate Loha sarung, stone dead, and informed us that there were two young ones in the nest.

These we quickly had handed down to us. As the mahout was doing so, he held them by the legs, their heads hanging downwards. One consequence of this sudden reversion of their ordinary posture was to cause them to eject each about eight or ten small fish, which must have been swallowed whole, and they came tumbling right on Pat's head. Here let me state a fact. It may interest some of my readers with a taste for natural history, and is a curious illustration of the tenacity of life possessed by some fish. One of the fish so unceremoniously ejected from the crop of the young Loha sarung was actually alive. It was a small ghurai, a species of river fish akin in habit and appearance somewhat to the gudgeon. It is purely a bottom fish, has a round bullet-like head, has the voracity of a pike, the vitality of an eel, and its colour assimilates with the mud in which it delights to grope about for food.

The Loha sarung, although purely a wading bird, and subsisting entirely on fish diet, is yet powerful on the wing and is rather a scarce animal. I fancy it is a species of tree crane, but I am not sufficiently posted up in Natural History to give its correct appellation. It stands about four feet in height, is of a creamy-slate colour on the back and wings, with a tint of lavender underneath. It has a long neck not unlike that of a swan, which is of an intense vivid blue. The feathers closely set, and overlapping like the scales on a fish. The irridescent hues are, very beautiful. Had I known the poor brute was sitting on young, I would not have shot it. The young ones were of the size of a half-grown goose, with the peculiar dingy yellow covering characteristic of the very adolescent gosling. The beautiful band of blue on the neck had not yet appeared on them. The neck was simply a dingier greyish yellow than the rest of the body. We tried to keep them alive. They took the fish we procured for them readily enough, but only lived for a few days after their capture.

With the poor dead bird hanging to the "pad," the limp wings flapping funereally, we proceeded farther along the river hank. In these grandly stocked reserves, the Koosee Duaras, or plains, if one goes out in this aimless sort of a way, only intent on shooting what he sees, his pad will often present a very curious, miscellaneous collection by the time he again reaches camp. Pat was not a "new chum," or "griff," as our Indian cousins would rather say, hut I had not long been in Bhaugulpore, and I fairly revelled in the shooting, which is so much superior here to what it is in the more settled districts of Tirhoot and Beliar generally. "We consequently blazed away at everything that got up.

To give you some idea of the sort of sport one may have on such an excursion as I am describing, let me barely enumerate the "bag" we twain made that morning. Before we got back to camp, our pad was like a poulterer's shop. Besides the Loha sarung, we shot a florican, a Brahminy duck, a wild goose, a brace of lalseer, or red-tufted mallard, several pintails, grey duck, and teal. All these, except the florican, we got by stalking silently through the long grass by the river's brink. We also shot two or three sandpipers, goggle-eyed plover, two beef-steak birds, or black ibis, and a couple of curlew. Pat knocked over a brace of snipe near one of the tanks, while I bagged a blue fowl, two grey partridges, a brace of hares, and two green pigeons, which we got in a small mango grove near a ruined village. So much for small game. Besides these we saw and could have shot numerous hog-deer, wild pig, otters, a tiger cat, a porcupine, innumerable crocodiles, and aquatic birds in endless variety and diversity.

Nor are these the only denizens of the dense brakes and populous sand banks and waters. At any moment a tiger, a herd of wild buffalo, a hyaena, or wolf, may get up before the elephant, while a rhinoceros is not by any means a rarity. There are few snakes in these jungles. The big brown water snake and the harmless hurreehara, a dainty, delicate-looking little reptile, are numerous enough, and the Dluimin, or grass snake, is not seldom seen; but the deadly cobra, the fatal Sankur, and the venomous Kerait keep more to the forest country and resort to the villages where rats, mice, poultry, frogs, and other such small deer most do congregate. Occasionally one may come across a python in these riverine plains, and I once shot one in the very place I have been describing, which on examination presented a very curious and uncommon illustration of the evil effects of greed and gluttony.

It had killed and must have swallowed whole a pretty big ravine deer. I found the horns of the deer had worked their way through the stomach of the enormous reptile, causing an ugly, most offensive, gangrenous sore, which rendered the skin perfectly useless as a specimen. The python, though swollen and enormously thick, only measured 13 feet in length. I have seen one killed at Beeprah, which measured 18 feet in length, and instances are recorded of even greater lengths than this.

I reverting to Joe's yarn of the preceding night, Pat asked me if I had ever experienced an encounter at such close quarters with any tiger or large animal. This brought the conversation back to the lordly felidse, and led me to relate a nocturnal adventure which had happened to me not long before, when I had been out in the forest country. And thus ran my yarn:—

"a NoctURNAL visitoR.

"It was a dream, a horrid dream.'

"It is not generally known that leopards, though inferior in size and strength to the 'jungle king,' the Royal Bengal Tiger, is yet his superior in courage and ferocity. Tigers generally prefer the long grass jungles that fringe the deep silent rivers of India, but the leopard loves the woods and forests, and not unfrequently makes his lair on a platform of tangled brushwood and intermatted creepers. I have shot them in places like this, at an elevation of over ten feet from the ground.

"They frequently haunt the vicinity of villages, and become bold robbers, carrying off the goats of the villagers, and eagerly snapping up a stray dog if he be unwary or unlucky enough to leave the precincts of the village pallisade. In the Sal jungles of Oudh, and among the cowherd and charcoal burners' villages along tlie Nepaulese frontier, many children are annually carried away by these beautiful spotted marauders. They usually prey on the chikara, a four-horned antelope, but black buck, spotted deer, and even wild hog will be captured at a pinch, and dogs and calves furnish them with many a savoury meal. My brother Tom, a tea-planter, writing from Ambooteah, Kurseong, Darjeeling, under date 14th May, 1887, says—and I quote it here to illustrate the trait I am referring to: 'One of my Syces killed a pretty big leopard the other day with his kookree. He was cutting grass, and it came upon him with a roar—all of a sudden. He had some puppy dogs with him, and it was them the leopard was after. I fancy they are awfully fond of dogs. A leopard took one of my dogs out of a cane chair in the Tukdah verandah one night,' and so on—but to my yam.

"In May, 1874, I was encamped near a picturesque village in North B.haugulpore, bordering on the gloomy Terai forests, and my men had reported to me that two leopards haunted the jungle close by. My tents were pitched on the high bank of a beautiful tank, which had been excavated in long remote ages by the first fathers of the hamlet, and whose stored-up treasury of the precious fluid proved a welcome blessing to the parched rice fields in seasons of drought

"All day the camp had presented a busy scene. Group after group of sturdy villagers had filed through the tent, taking advances for the coming manufacturing season; for the indigo was now waving high, and it was time to engage carts and cutters, ploughs for the factory lands, and loaders and beaters for the vats. Some had balances to receive, others had vexed accounts to clear up. Some wanted loans on the. security of bullocks or cattle, wherewith to purchase seed or agricultural implements. My native writers had been busy with their reed pens, and squatted on the ground, rocked their bodies backwards and forwards, as they drowsily intoned the particulars of voluminous accounts to the village putwarrie or accountant, who, in turn, elucidated the mysteries of each man's hisab to the gaping villagers outside, underneath the tamarind trees.

"The day had been intensely hot. All the long forenoon, a fierce west wind, laden with burning particles of dust, had been blowing; and the afternoon was close, still, terribly hot. The hand in the tent, waved by a sleepy, perspiring punkah wallah, disturbed the air, but gave no relief, for the air felt like the hot blast of a furnace. At length, the welcome evening breeze began to faintly sigh amongst the bamboo leaves. My domestic servants, who had been sleeping all day beneath the shadow of the great fig-tree near the tank, began to rouse up. The syccs or grooms, came round with their buckets for the evening allowance of gram for the horses. The dog-keeper let loose the dogs, who came rushing boisterously into the tent, scattering the papers of the putwarries; and the dusky slaves of the pen bundled up their dingy unsavoury papers and parchments, and with a lowly salaam shuffled on their clumsy shoes that had been baking outside in the sun all day, and left the camp, to cook their curry and rice in the village.

"The gomastah or head man came up with his report to tell me- of the prospects of the crops, the men who had carts, who would engage on the morrow, and generally to give me all the news of the different parts of the cultivation under his charge.

"Among other items of information, Debnarain Singh, such was his name, told me that the leopards (for there were marks of two) had destroyed a fine calf right in the village the previous night, and that they were becoming a regular pest to the poor ryots. I determined on looking them up next day, and told Debnarain to arrange for beaters, tomtoms, and fireworks. With these I hoped to oust the spotted vixens from the;r lair; and from my position on a mychan, or elevated platform of branches, get a shot at their bright and glossy hides.

"After a dinner of peafowl and curry, washed down with artificially cooled and ever-welcome Bass, I was glad to throw myself down in my camp bed, and read the paper which the dak runner or postman had just brought in from the post-station some ten miles distant. We retire early in India during the hot weather, or when alone in camp, for the morning is the coolest and most enjoyable part of the day, and we are up long before the sun shows his lurid blood-red disc above the coppery horizon.

"For the sake of coolness, the khanats, or side walls of the tent, had all been removed. The breeze had died away, and the night was still and oppressively hot. From the village came the distant bum of the villagers and camp followers gossiping after their evening meal. My dogs lay around panting with outstretched tongues. A faint sound of some distant musician, drearily drumming his melancholy and monotonous tomtom (or native hand-drum); the howl of some village cur, the tweet-tweet of a belated minah (or Indian starling), or occasional horrid din of the screech-owl as her harsh grating cry awakened the echoes, were the only sounds to break the stillness. Far in the forest might at times be heard the howl of a wolf or the bark of a hog deer; but gradually sound after sound faded away and stillness reigned.

"Near at hand, a most unearthly yell, which seems the despairing cry of some midnight demon, startles the deathly silence. The awful howl is caught up and repeated from every quarter, till the whole forest seems peopled with howling demons, and Acheron itself seems broken loose. This sets the dogs agoing. The terriers bark furiously. The retrievers whine and yelp. The two kangaroo hounds bay out a loud wail, and the servants raise their heads and utter angry imprecations. "Down, Dandy. Chup rao Moscow;" and the sounds again die away. It is only the jackals, and nobody minds them, although they might carry off one's boots and rifle the cooking tent, if the dogs did not keep watch and ward.

"At length all the camp is hushed in slumber. For a long time I lay awake thinking. It is too hot to sleep. The horses stamp and move about restlessly. Old 'Typo,' my noble hound, is asleep, and dreaming in his sleep of some cunning, dodging old jackal, he utters short excited yelps. He is no doubt dreaming of a rare hunt.

"My mind reverts to my old College days—the dear old quadrangle where oft I have paced to and fro with loved comrades scattered far and wide. Farther back wanders the busy memory. I see the old village church with its background of crimson heather and golden whin. The mossy boulders on the hill, beside which the moorcock plumed his glossy brown crest, and the grouse strutted proudly among the bracken. I see the brown waters of Effoch dancing noisily down the steep glen, and the glinting of the yellow bum trout as he loups behind yon hoary moss-covered boulder. Here comes Tam Ross, the shepherd, round the peat stack, with his dogs frisking about him, and far away up the brae a few sharp reports, the puffs of smoke lazily curling upwards, tell me 'the shooters' are out for the day.

"I am asleep at last. But it is so hot. I am not sleeping easily. It is a troubled repose. I have occasional waking moments. The flickering oil lamp in the corner of the tent seems to trouble me and keep me awake. All is still, not a breath of air stirs.

"Suddenly I am awake, wide awake, although my eyes still remain closed; but a nameless terror ties me down to the bed. A horrible fascination seems to keep me spellbound. I have a terrible weight of some dreadful horror on me. My limbs are tied. I cannot move. I would give worlds to cry out—to move a limb; but my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and my body is as rigid as iron. I am possessed with an awful fear. I know some terrible impending danger confronts me. All this flashed through my mind. It must have been instantaneous. And yet I was in danger, real ghastly danger. I opened my eyes! The oil lamp had gone out, but through the open walls of the tent a bright moon shone. It was almost as clear as noon, and there, right in the centre of the tent, within two feet of my face, stood a large full-grown leopard. It was a magnificent animal. There was no sound save a subdued snore from some sleeping tenant. How the brute had crept in among the sleeping dogs and servants I never could divine. Hunger could not have been her motive. She stood silently in the middle of the tent. Her keen eye glared right in mine. Her supple lissome tail waved slowly from side to side, with a short spasmodic twitch at the extreme tip, as you may have seen a cat's do, when lying on the grass watching a bird. I could almost feel the brute's breath upon my face. I was, as you can imagine, in 'a mortal funk.' At any moment the brute might spring upon me. As I gazed, the eyes seemed to contract and expand, and as I made an involuntary movement, the fierce animal retracted her lips, disclosing to my view the formidable fangs. How long I lav thus I do not know. The leopard never stirred a step. There she stood intently glaring into my strained eyes. At length to my intense relief she turned slowly round. My agony of suspense was becoming intolerable. "With a glance behind, which seemed plainly to say, 'lie still,' she bounded lightly over the prostrate form of a coolie lying huddled in his white cloth, and made leisurely off. Then with a yell in which all my pent-up breath found vent, I roused the sleepers, and fired two rapid shots with my handy revolver, one of which I fancied took effect. Dogs barked. Servants cried out. I rushed for my gun, and just then the leopard turned round and surveyed the agitated and alarmed camp.

"She stood out clear and distinct in the pearly moonlight. She certainly looked a picture. I took a deliberate aim, fired, and my bullet taking her fair behind the shoulder, she toppled over without a lurch.

"Then there was a row and a rumpus; such a torrent of exclamations, queries, shouts of delight and eager ejaculations. At all events, the leopard was dead. She measured 7 feet 9 inches—one of the biggest and most handsome of marked animals I have ever shot. How to account for her strange visit and her unusual forbearance, I cannot. The incident happened as I have described. How the dogs did not discern her presence, I know not. All I know is, that the skin long decorated my mother's fireside at home; and from this nocturnal intrusion my nerves received the rudest shock they have ever experienced during a rather adventurous and varied career among the wild denizens of the Indian brakes and jungles."


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